If you open Mark Bowden’s military classic Black Hawk Down to its first page, you’ll see the first line of the book reads, “At liftoff, Matt Eversmann said a Hail Mary.” Eversmann was one of about 100 U.S. soldiers who were dropped from a helicopter into the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 3, 1993. And what began as a planned hour-long mission to seize the lieutenants of a Somali warlord ended up in 18 hours of facing off with Somali militia.
Eversmann, who retired from the Army in 2008 as a sergeant, is this year’s featured speaker for Homecoming. He will be delivering a talk, “The Story of Black Hawk Down,” at 7 p.m. tonight at the McKimmon Center. The event is free and open to the public. We caught up with Eversmann to talk about the mission and the lessons he took from it.
Was the military always something you aspired to be a part of growing up? It was. I had joined. My father had been in the service. My sister became an Army nurse. My brother went to VMI. I had no plan at all of it becoming a career.
Going into that day in October 1993, had anything prepared you for what you guys experienced for those 18 hours? In peacetime, your sense of mission preparation and training is your number one focus. So when you get into a unit like the [Army] Rangers, it’s more pronounced. All your work is focused on the go-to-war mission. We’d been training for this battle for wherever it’s going to be. …For those who had never been to combat, your first mission is kind of your final examination.
You were 26 years old at the time. How are you different today than you were then as a young man? I do look at events in daily life as very black and white. …I tend to look at things very simplistically. I don’t think you can help it. I think that’s a change. Unfortunately what goes with that also is a lot of cynicism. The other part is there is also a bit, and I’m going to sound like Pollyanna here, but your appreciation for so many things in life becomes so acute. For me, family time and just doing the little things.
When did you start thinking about going around and talking about the experience? What does it give you? The demand was there for people to hear. And the supply side, going back to even say 9/11, there were still a lot of Americans not touched by the world of terror. So it dawned on me I had a great opportunity to share our story and what a bunch of 18- to 35-year-old soldiers did in an unbelievably bad situation. And that’s so rewarding.
And I would imagine you’re gaining a new audience? If you’re a freshman or a sophomore [in college] you weren’t even born then. There are a whole group of folks who don’t know, or if they do know, they only know the movie.
Were you in Ridley Scott’s ear saying, “There’s this handsome guy named Josh Hartnett, and I think he would make a brilliant Matt Eversmann in the movie version of the book?” I had never heard of the kid until they had cast him in the movie. I didn’t know what young independent film guys are. I never will forget, Mark Bowden sent me an email and the line said, “The New Matt Eversmann.” And there was this picture of Josh Hartnett sitting on a beach in Hawaii.
What message do you want people to walk away with tonight? The real nuts and bolts are how we are preparing as leaders, as business leaders, as athletes for this inevitable crisis that’s going to come unbeknownst to us. How do we make decisions on the battlefield? Is it training or emotions? I hope we can share some stories. It doesn’t matter if you’re the student body president or a team captain, we’re going to be in the breech and we’re going to have to figure it out. We’re all average guys and gals. But average people can do pretty amazing things.